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How we come to understand the bible.


Original unique event e.g. Jesus healings


Occurs in a Specific culture


Is moderated by the individuals own personal understanding

( Vocabulary (Concepts (Models (Meanings

(Vocabulary (Concepts (Models (Meanings (Experiences (Motives

Individual passes on his particular understanding to others


Further modification depending on culture of recipient

Further transmission in time and place

Original event understood differently as passed from culture to culture and re-interpreted.

(Vocabulary (Concepts (Models (Meanings (Personal experiences

You and me

How do we understand Jesus?

The Jesus experience

Ancient Middle Eastern Culture


N T Jesus
Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, New Adam, Word, Lord, prophet, teacher, high priest, redeemer, healer, exorcist, etc.

Western Culture
Church History, Church theology, Church Western Culture Fathers

Creedal Jesus
Creeds, catechism, doctrines, liturgy,

5 Modern Western Culture

The Church Jesus

Modern Jesuses
Secular Christ, Liberator, Mystic, Cynic, Psychiatrist, New Age Jesuses, etc.

Biblical studies, Non-canonical books, culture studies, sociology, psychology, archaeology, history

7 8 Non-Western Cultures
India, Africa, China, Japan, Korea etc

Afro-Asian Christologies 9
Jesus as Guru, Avatar, Bodhisattva, Prophet, Healer, Ancestor






New Jesus understanding

1. For some of those who met Jesus in the flesh that experience must have been an overwhelming. These were the individuals who had ears to hear and were receptive to his message. This personal encounter and experience was the basis for the early followers of the Way. The community would have passed around stories of his visits, his parables and healings. Witnesses would recount his exorcisms and miracles. This was the oral transmission that was later collated into the gospels. What would have been of prime importance was his personal effect on those who saw and heard: Jesus came here, did this, and I thought he was...... After his death and resurrection there was an even greater need to understand him. Prophets were a recognizable category in Jewish thought, but a prophet who came back from the dead was completely unknown. So thinkers had to grapple with the question of who was Jesus really. 2. Their experience would have been communicated through their Middle Eastern cultural understanding. First century Palestine was an amalgam of Jewish, Greek and, to some extent, Roman influences. In order to understand this amazing person, they would have searched their culture for a means to describe him and his actions. We know that in Jewish thought there were a variety of Messiahs who were expected to deliver Israel form oppression. In pagan thought there was the paradigm of the dying and rising god. All such ideas were grist to the mill and ended up producing a variety of ways, or metaphors, to describe who Jesus was and why he was incredibly important. Consequently we have in the New Testament the well known titles for Jesus: Christ Lord Logos (the Word) Son of Man Son of God Lamb of God New Adam / Second Adam Light of the World King of the Jews Rabboni and Rabbi Etc.

There are also many descriptions of what Jesus did which try to explain his importance:

Biblical Metaphors for Sin and its Cure.


Metaphor for Sin Sickness Weakness Stain Under attack Slavery Imprisonment Law breaking Unrighteousness

Character of Jesus


No fault No fault No fault No fault No fault No fault Culpable Culpable Questionable Questionable Questionable Questionable Questionable Questionable Questionable Questionable

Physician Strengthener Cleanser Defender Redeemer Liberator Advocate Justifier

Matthew 9.11 ff Hebrews 4.15 ff Ps 51; Ezekiel 26 1 Peter 5.8 ff Romans 6.18; Luke 4.18 Luke 4.18 1 John 2.1; 3.4 Romans 5.1 Luke 15.4; John 10.11 John 9.5; Matthew 4.16 Ephesians 4.17-21 1 Corinthians 1.20 Matthew 18.27 Ezekiel 36.26 2 Corinthians 5.19; Romans 5.10 ff Hebrews 10.10 4

Straying, getting lost Guide / Shepherd Blindness Ignorance Foolishness Debt Hardness Separation Unholiness Light Truth / Teacher Wisdom Canceller Softener Reconciler Sanctifier

Thus we have in the New Testament a large collection of meditations / metaphors attempting to make Jesus and his mission understandable to those who didnt know him.


Of course, understanding and communicating Jesus doesnt stop. The Western and Eastern Churches debated who Jesus was and what he achieved. They used the theological ideas which were available. Hence the creeds are couched in Hellenistic thought forms. The Churches built up a vast body of theological reflection, biblical commentary and liturgical forms which reflected their understanding. During this time disagreements over belief also produced schisms within the churches which has resulted in the denominations we know today. Consequently, up until very recently, we had a more or less creedal Jesus. The Catholic Church insisting on its right to interpret Jesus and his status and issuing doctrines to support its beliefs, whilst the Protestant Church tended to derive their views of Jesus strictly from consulting the bible and using biblical exegesis to support their beliefs. It has been a history of orthodoxies verses heresies, the work of enlightened reformers as well as the rise of rigid sects.


5. Necessarily, a member of a church ended up believing in a Church Jesus. Often they would have to subscribe to certain beliefs before they could be admitted into the church. There were subtle and not so subtle differences between the churches. One has only to compare the Roman Catholic Church with the Christadelphians to the Religious Society of Friends. Nevertheless all western Christians shared a similar religious history, the bible and lived in the same culture. Communicating ideas was relatively simple although not always welcomed. 6. The modern western culture allows a profusion of ideas to be quickly disseminated by electronic means. There has been a wealth of information from archaeology which impinges on bible study, as well as a mass of information from Nag Hammadi (1945) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) and which, if not directly impacting on the bible, nevertheless provides important contextual evidence. Bible studies have continued apace and we are in a much better position to have the most accurate text so far, as well as a clearer understanding of Hebrew and Aramaic idioms and literary devices in the scriptures. Cultural studies, sociology and psychology have been used to better understand the bible. Non-canonical books have been scoured to see if any verifiable references to Jesus can be found. All in all there is a plethora of information. 7. This is also an age when most churches are experiencing a decline in membership. At the same time new forms of spirituality are emerging or being imported from Asia and Africa. The New Age movement embraces orthodox Zen Buddhism, Wicca and self-help psychologies to mention but a few. New ideas in theology understanding have also become evident. Jesus is portrayed as a liberator for the poor and oppressed. He is seen as a secular Christ in the city. He is written of as a mystic or Cynic and even a village psychiatrist. All these images of Christ are a result of biblical study and engagement with the world, but they seek to use new terms to describe what Jesus is doing in the world today as much as what he has already done. 5

In general these modern images of Jesus are on the edges of the established churches or promoted by more radical Christian groups who are tired of the inactivity of mainstream churches. 8. Although the main churches tend to ignore the non-standard images of Jesus, they are forced to look at Jesus in a different perspective when they send out missionaries. When translating the bible into a foreign language, what is often required to make sense of a particular text is to use a dynamic equivalent. If a tribe has no concept of kinship, their idea of a tribal leader may be used if it provides the underlying meaning that is required. 9. Theologians in Africa, Asia, India, China and elsewhere, where Christians are a minority, are looking at what may be used as a dynamic equivalent for Jesus and his work. In the spiritual texts of these cultures are gurus, bodhisattvas, avatars, healers, ancestors etc. Interestingly, when Jesus can be appropriately seen under a different umbrella, his meaning for the missionary exporting culture is enhanced and new understandings can arise. This can be immensely rewarding as we are now so far from the original Jesus experience that our faith can be tired, stale and difficult to understand.

10. 11. 12. 13. As of today we have a complex variety of images, suggestions, conclusions, and questions about Jesus. He has spilled out of the churches and can be seen in popular culture as well. In the midst of all this information we search for a personal Jesus that makes sense of our lives. We try to get back to the original Jesus Experience, so we can be confronted with the truth of his person and his mission: To see how the Kingdom of God is both happening under our very noses, as well as coming in its fullness in the future. 14. Whether as a member of a church, a group or as a searching individual, we eventually come to a Jesus that informs our lives in one way or another. Having sifted through the available information, we let Gods spirit guide us to the truth and fit the jigsaw pieces together: and we meet the Living God. NOTE Given the diversity of images and reflections on Jesus in contemporary society, it must be born in mind that there are non-negotiable parameters for any discovered Jesus to remain within Christianity: There must be an affirmation that God exists, as revealed in the bible. That a relationship with God is possible. That the New Testament, especially the Gospels, provide direct and indirect information about Jesus. That Jesus was a historical person in first century Palestine. That the human Jesus was doing the will of God. That Jesus had a specific mission, namely, to bring in the Kingdom of God. That Jesus was executed but was later witnessed as alive by many people.

This list may not be comprehensive enough, but it should encompass most Christian groups. I have omitted elements derived from Johns gospel and Pauls writings as I consider them later extrapolations of the original Jesus message. Others may disagree. What does this mean in practice? One can look at Jesus under the label of mentor. This is similar to the biblical record where he was addressed as teacher and rabbi. However there are subtle differences between these terms. We are used to teacher from our own experience. We are probably not used to rabbi, nor its precise meaning in Judaism. Many will be used to the term mentor, having experienced it in their employment or elsewhere. So considering Jesus as a mentor to his group of disciples may provide valuable insight into those relationships which we might otherwise be overlooked. I consider the term mentor fits within the parameters outlined above. However the term guru cannot be used without some qualifications. In its Hindu context it has rich associations with a teacher who brings enlightenment to his students. Should it be used of Jesus, then one would have to extract those ideas which do not fit into the Christian parameters outlined above. Nevertheless the attempt is not without merit. There are several books which attempt such cross-fertilization including The Non-Western Jesus, which prompted this essay. The issue, in accepting a particular view of Jesus, is one of careful discernment: looking at the cultural background which has produced a particular view of Jesus and deciding if it a new cultural context is still consistent with the known facts.

Elizabeth-Anne Stewart (Jesus the Holy Fool) reminds us of two important facts: Jesus is clearly greater than any personal definition that we may have, but because we ourselves are limited, such a personal definition becomes essential in terms of our relating to him. What is more helpful is to identify with the (facet of) Christ who speaks to us in the immediacy of our unique circumstances.